Austin, Texas, Paging Frank Capra

For UT Regent Wallace Hall, it’s not a wonderful life.

Frank Capra would be appalled at what’s going on in Austin, Texas. The legendary director is best remembered for his populist-themed movies featuring idealistic individuals triumphing over corrupt leaders. Think It’s a Wonderful Life(1946) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), both starring Jimmy Stewart as the stalwart Everyman. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart played George Bailey, a decent citizen of Bedford Falls, New York, who devotes his life to helping his neighbors, expecting and demanding nothing in return, to the disgust of corrupt rival banker Henry Potter (played with sly malevolence by Lionel Barrymore). Potter eventually exploits Bailey’s earnest nature to put him out of business, accusing him of a crime and siccing the bank examiners on him. In the sentimental ending that is Capra’s trademark, Bailey’s friends and neighbors come to his rescue, saving him from ignominy and disgrace.

Since the holiday season is upon us, it’s useful to reflect on the lessons taught by Capra’s morality tale and their application to the drama now unfolding in Austin, in which University of Texas Regent Wallace L. Hall, Jr. faces an impeachment investigation by a legislative committee. Hall is a latter-day George Bailey: a civic-minded Dallas businessman who agreed, at Governor Rick Perry’s request, to serve on the nine-member UT Board of Regents, the governing body of the university’s 15-campus system. A volunteer, Hall receives no compensation for his services. When he became a Regent in February 2011, Hall was initially concerned about rapidly escalating tuition, unsatisfactory four-year graduation rates, and an academic administration resistant to improvement and reform. On further investigation, Hall grew troubled by a pattern of favoritism within UT—an off-the-books, forgivable-loan program for certain faculty at the UT law school, influential legislators obtaining preferential admission to the law school for their unqualified children, and the like.

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